Book Review: Reubin O’D. Askew and the Golden Age of Florida Politics

With the Florida Legislature about to begin another two year term with today’s organization session, I can find no better time than to review this book. Martin Dyckman who covered the Tallahassee scene for the St Petersburg Times from the 1960s until the 1990s, has written a masterpiece about Florida political history that should be required reading for every current state legislator. Dyckman starts his narrative in the late 1960s as Florida’s constitutional revision is taking place. Claude Kirk is the Governor, one of only three Republican Governors to win the South post Great Depression (all were elected in 1966 or 1967) and Florida’s first GOP Governor since the Reconstitution era. Kirk’s eccentric nature moved Florida forward on some counts, notably the environment where he deferred to Nathaniel Reed, but backwards in other aspects such as labor relations, social policy and civility. Askew’s election in 1970 was badly needed, and served the state well.

As Dyckman demonstrates in this work, the 1970s were a glory era in Florida politics as the fast growing state became the envy of the sunbelt with a smart progressive leadership under Governors Reuben Askew, and Bob Graham as well as a proactive cabinet and cooperative House of Representatives. Government in the Sunshine and other progressive reforms were the handiwork of enlightened and talented Democrats who hold no equal in today’s Florida. But they were also made possible by Republicans whose independence and understanding of Florida made them valuable allies for Askew, Graham and others in the fight against an obstructionist State Senate led by Dempsey Barron and  other conservatives.

House Minority Leader Don Reed’s statesmanlike in his approach and willingness to work with Democratic leaders of different stripes on issues like Tax Reform, Government Reform, Environmental Protection, Judicial Reform and Growth Management was very different than the GOP leaders of today. In fact, with political corruption at record levels, the traditional Florida GOP was part of the solution working with good government Democrats to solve the problem and pass new laws that safeguarded public funds and the public trust. This was the case at both the state and local levels. With liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans a governing coalition emerged that saw state and local Government as a means to combat Florida’s problems.

The author makes a very strong point about the switch from multi-member districts to single-member districts. It is a point I have often made privately that we have developed more narrow minded and ideological, reflexively conservative legislators since the change in the early 1980s. Dyckman tells story after story in his book that illustrate the points I have made above but perhaps  he gave his most memorable story about Askew’s speech to the pro-big business Council of 100:

The ballroom of the luxurious Breakers resort  (in Palm Beach) was filled with men in tuxedos and women resplendent in gowns and jewels. They were powerful, prosperous people unaccustomed to the sort of tongue-lashing that Askew, speaking without a script, was about to give them. “We don’t have too many poor people in this room tonight,” he said, contrasting the glittering scene with the poverty of migrant labor shacks at nearby Pahokee. Florida “isn’t so beautiful for a lot of other people, and there’s no reason for it, Florida being so affluent as it is,” he declared. “This is not the end of tax reform,” he told them, “but the beginning — the beginning of a new day.”

Askew’s rhetoric in this speech was nothing unusual for him. The Governor’s strong courage in his convictions steered Florida through a very difficult transition and had more of an impact on making the state worth living in than any other Floridian in the 20th Century. Today’s leaders could learn a great deal by simply reading this book.

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